Yorke on Games #19 – Games as Contracts


Different players of the same game will sometimes have varied expectations of each other’s behavior, or indeed, altogether different understandings of what a game is and what playing one entails. Such misunderstandings are regrettable but generally avoidable if players share a similar framework for making play behavior intelligible. Today, I will outline a framework for understanding games as contracts in the hopes of minimizing the frequency and intensity of such disputes in the future.

Step 1: Understand what you’re getting into
Step 1: Understand what you’re getting into

What is a Contract?

At its most basic level, a contract is a voluntary, mutually-binding agreement between two or more parties that is enforceable by law. If your cooperation is being coerced, then the contract is void. If what you are contracting to do is illegal, then the contract is void. If you make a quasi-contract with yourself (to lose five pounds in a month, for instance), it is non-binding because it is not really a contract. By definition, you need at least one other signatory for it to formally qualify as a contract.

Step 2: Agree to mutually satisfactory terms
Step 2: Agree to mutually satisfactory terms


Abstracting from the legal definition of contracts yields the philosophical position of contractarianism, the idea that the morally right way to behave is that which all rational agents would consent to under ideally fair conditions. In other words, I can’t expect anyone else to enter into a behavioral contract that advantages my interests over their own. Unlike mundane business contracts, ethical contracts have equality built into their fabric, and cannot be used as tools for generating personal gain.

Step 3: Stick to the rules
Step 3: Stick to the rules

Games as Contracts

Games can be profitably interpreted as contracts: voluntary agreements that bind the behavior of all players for their duration. Specifically, the game rules constitute the explicit, written terms of the contract. All players are expected to abide by these (i.e., no cheating). Not doing so constitutes grounds for immediate termination of the contract (i.e., the game ends), and perhaps even for compensation on the part of the non-defecting player at the expense of the player responsible for the violation.

From a contractarian perspective, the act of agreeing to play a game is tantamount to an acceptance by all involved parties that it is mutually rationally desirable to abide by the explicit rules of the game, and also (implicitly) to play seriously, to the best of one’s abilities (i.e., no trifling) and to see it through to its conclusion (i.e., no spoilsporting). To defect from these terms would not only be condemnable in terms of morality or etiquette, it would also indicate that one of the player’s decisions—either the decision to play, or the decision to defect—was irrational to begin with.

To understand both how common and how practically important implicit contracts are, consider the following everyday activity: You jump in a taxi, and give the driver a destination. While nothing is written down, it is minimally and universally understood that (1) the driver is obliged to take you to your destination (if it is within a reasonable distance and not, say, in another country), and (2) you are obliged to pay the driver the amount indicated on the meter (if it is within a reasonable amount and not, say, triple what you’ve paid for the same distance on previous occasions). These are, in a sense, mere conventions, but they carry legal consequences if violated. You could, for example, be charged with theft if you jump out of the car without paying, and the driver could be charged with discrimination if they refused to drive you where you wanted to go based on your sex, race, or age.

Behavior in games, too, constitutes an implicit contract between their players, although the consequences for defaulting are typically moral rather than legal. Player behavior should reflect the intentions behind the rules, as well as their written word. After all, the intention of entering into a contract is to enable a certain type of activity, the purpose of which should be taken seriously by all participants. So if your opponent in Magic doesn’t care about reducing your life total to zero, but rather spends all of their time trying to get as many +1/+1 counters as possible on their non-creature permanents, there is ample reason to be aggrieved at this behavior; they are trifling, by playing a different game with you than the one they’d contracted to. And if your opponent rage-quits one turn into the game, when no meaningful plays have yet been made by either player, then you can be justifiably irritated with them; they have been a spoilsport and truncated an experience you’d both contracted to generate via your mutual efforts. These issues, though not frequently discussed, exist in tandem with the more easily-identifiable contract violations involved with blatant cheating.
Despite the consistency of all three of these “layers” involved in contracting to play a game with another, there will still be a great variation in the aesthetic quality of game experiences from one match to the next. This is in part because each opponent will bring different attitudes, different values, different customs, and have his or her own unique personality, imagination, and skills to the game. Let’s turn to these considerations now, and see how these can be analyzed under the contract framework.

Step 4: Respect customs of civility
Step 4: Respect customs of civility

Player Obligations

Some players will insist that they have absolute freedom to play the game however they like, so long as their behavior does not violate the wording of the rules. Non-threatening taunting, for example, is rules-neutral behavior—it is neither part of the formal ruleset, nor is it forbidden by them. A few players will even suggest that utilizing taunts to tilt their opponents is behavior that is demanded of serious players: not using every advantage at your disposal is taken to mean that you’re not fully committed to winning the game.

Taunting is, however, forbidden by the customs of civility. And, just as in a contract one is not free to break the laws of the nation, neither are games an occasion to freely break with culturally-encoded norms. Expressing one’s individuality cannot come at the cost of violating the social contract that a game represents; otherwise, the framework within which such expressions of individuality are made possible comes under threat. Being a dick, in short, is self-defeating behavior.

Of course, the content of the previous paragraph is contentious. In some sense, games represent exactly the kinds of heterotopic spaces wherein safe, condoned violations of norms are permitted to occur. In fact, some are specifically designed to enable such violations: spin-the-bottle comes to mind as an example of a game that is custom-built for the purpose of transcending social boundaries. Some games have their own culture, their own norms, which supersede even those of the surrounding meta-culture, and exceptions are occasionally built into the law to account for these. For instance, physical assault, which is typically illegal, is condoned in the sport of boxing; and poker represents a collective redistribution of wealth which, if conducted outside the framework of the game, would be simple theft.

But taunting (and other posturing behavior) is employed in the culture of competitive gaming precisely because its violation of the norms of civility is calculated to shock, anger, confuse, or otherwise cloud the mind of an opponent, to make them perform suboptimally in the game in question due to dilution of focus and the arousal of strong and disturbing emotions. If it is the (arguably moral) duty of the player to try to win employing any means permitted by the rules, then why not denigrate or otherwise attempt to psychologically rattle an opponent? It is just this: by playing games in such a way, we become morally bad people, and most games are simply not worth playing if the cost of admission is “become an asshole.”

Further, if the (sub)culture or institution of any game explicitly or tacitly accepts or encourages such aggressive behavior among their player base, then it is a morally defective game (if not in theory, then in practice), and the act of playing it de facto makes you a morally worse person. We might describe such games as “asshole factories.” If every player of Game X that you’ve ever met is an asshole, then you have a strong prima facie reason for believing that Game X is an asshole factory.

Put differently, physical assault isn’t okay just because it’s allowed by the rules of boxing. Despite its overwhelming cultural acceptance, boxing is just a morally bad game because its rules allow physical assault. Boxing makes its athletes morally worse off than they would be if they refrained from doing so. Being fans of boxing, then, makes us morally complicit and at least partially culpable for the routine physical assaults which take place within it with our knowledge and support, regardless of the fact that all the fighters involved have given their full, informed consent to hit and be hit. Once a game like boxing is identified as having a corrupt ruleset or institutional structures, players have a moral obligation to either avoid such games or work toward reforming them.

Step 5: Boycott asshole factories
Step 5: Boycott asshole factories

Avoid Bad Contracts

It would be inadvisable to play cards with a criminal. If they don’t feel bound by the law, they (probably—though not necessarily) won’t feel bound by the relatively lower-stakes violation represented by cheating at a game. Although one could imagine a possible counterexample in a gangster who felt that “Murder is just good fun… Poker, on the other hand, is sacred,” such a perverse inversion of the normal ordering of values is unlikely.

If we consider cheating at a game to constitute an instance of immorality—and I see no good reason why we should not—then we have a vested interest in not playing against less vicious types of immoral people as well. If their cheating goes undetected, they will have a strong edge on us, making the contest unfair. If their cheating is exposed, the experience of enjoyment of the game will be greatly diminished by the arousal of unpleasant emotions and the bureaucratic tedium involved in having the cheating event reported, documented, and resolved. Thus, playing a cheater is a lose/lose situation. It is no wonder that they are universally reviled in gaming communities.

The next category of player, unpleasant or taunting players, generate a slightly murkier analysis: there’s no logical reason to avoid playing with them, except that generally you’d prefer not to. The player who is content to violate cultural norms—to be discourteous, abrasive, and posturing—is either immoral, or toying with it (while at the same time, they might actually mistake their behavior as being moral, because it has been accepted by the institution of a morally degenerate game, and paraded as acceptable).

There are two models for understanding and dealing with such a player (though neither is applicable to professionals): the virus model and the social Darwinist model. The virus model contends that discourtesy begets discourtesy: it spreads from player to player in a like manner to contracting a virus, and the only defense against becoming an unpleasant player yourself is to quarantine yourself away from them. The aim of employing this strategy is to starve the virus of victims, and thus hopefully make the rate of incidence of unpleasantness will go down, and eventually disappear from the community.

The social Darwinist model is the position that a life of micro-aggressions constitutes its own punishment—the stress built up inside oneself from being consistently antagonistic means that it will inevitably be in one’s own self-interest to quit the game and leave the gaming community on the simple basis of self-preservation. This factor, combined with the accretion of animosity in all of one’s previous opponents, will mean that the aggressive player will be cast out from the herd or face such a high frequency of toxic behavior in response that they will exile themselves. Why should this be? The reason is simple: Imagine that you have a choice between two opponents, A and B. A is courteous and pleasant; B is sneering and boorish. Whom would you prefer to play against? What does your choice say about you?

Step 6: Recontract as often as is pleasing
Step 6: Recontract as often as is pleasing


Given the choice between getting involved in a good game and supporting an asshole factory, the good game will always be rationally preferable from a contractarian standpoint because it is sustainable in the long run (being an asshole is behavior that is parasitic on other people providing sufficient good will to tolerate you, which is a non-renewable resource). And given the more practical choice between an intentionally unpleasant opponent and an unintentionally even-tempered one, it will always be more rewarding to enter the contract of a game with the latter than the former. These facts about games and gaming are themselves quite simple and straightforward; the contract model I’ve outlined above is simply a metaphor that helps us remember that, in games as much as business, who you’re working with matters just as much as reading the fine print to the outcome of your mutual venture.